News, views and commentary with an anarchist twist

Talk given to the ACG – Myth of Community

Saturday 1 June 2019

PREAMBLE

I’d like to thank the ACG for inviting me to share my experiences of community activism. Hopefully, the following will play a small part in improving our understanding of what ‘community’ actually means and also, help in resolving the issues all of us face when working in our neighbourhoods.

THE IWCA YEARS

  • Some of the most valuable lessons I learnt about community organising came from my time with the Independent Working Class (IWCA).
  • As well as helping out branches in Blackbird Leys (Oxford) and Islington, I also stood in 2007 and 2008 as a candidate in the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward.
  • This ward is in an area of predominantly post WW2 overspill housing plonked out on the edgelands of the Thames Estuary in Essex.
  • As soon as I started slogging round the streets canvassing, I started to learn some interesting lessons.
  • The most important one being that by and large, most people are pretty much apolitical and only think about politics if there’s an election coming round.#
  • Pinning people down on the political spectrum did actually prove difficult as people would be pretty progressive on some issues and quite reactionary on others.
  • The lesson learned was that in any form of community organising, we have to start with where people are and accept that it’s going to be an ongoing process to get them moving towards where we’d like them to be.

VANGE HILL / TENURE / COMMUNITY CHURN

  • Along with our comrades from Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA), we spent a couple of years working alongside the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG).
  • As with our days in the IWCA, when it comes to working with community groups, you have to start from where you are and gradually turn them round to your way of thinking.
  • Vange Hill is a housing estate on the southern fringes of Basildon that has more than it’s fair share of problems.
  • What remains of the social housing on the estate has been passed onto a number of housing associations who don’t seem to have fully grasped the concept of accountability.
  • A fair sized chunk of the social housing that was lost to ‘Right to Buy’ has ended up in the hands of private landlords as ‘Buy to Let’ properties.
  • Too many of these landlords are getting away with doing the bare minimum necessary in terms of maintaining their properties.
  • On the Vange Hill Estate, there are a lot of ‘Homes of Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs).
  • These HMOs are let to a wide range of tenants ranging from groups of migrant workers through to people with mental health / addiction issues desperate for any kind of roof over their heads.
  • We found one horror story while undertaking a community clean up when we met a young woman housed by the local authority in a house with four other men!
  • The problem on an estate with a large number of HMOs with a continuous churn of tenants is that it’s hard to build a sense of community.
  • Going back to our IWCA days, when I helped out on an election campaign in Islington in 2005, because they only have elections every four years, one of the activists said to me that on some estates where homes had been purchased with the specific purpose of being let, it would mean a churn of 30% in the tenants, making it harder to build a permanent base of support.
  • As well as the churn from the number of HMOs, there’s also the issue of properties being brought up by London based housing associations, Local Space Stratford being one of them, to house people being socially cleansed from the capital.
  • We’ve spent more time than we care to remember explaining to the locals on the Vange Hill estate why this is happening, putting it in the broader context of the housing crisis in London and the social cleansing that results as a consequence.
  • Apart from a few hardcore bigots who because of their own far right leanings refuse to listen, generally, we’ve made some headway in getting our analysis across.
  • So, one of the major issues is the perception that community spirit in Vange Hill is under threat because of the number of HMOs and the churn in the population this causes.
  • Most of the long standing residents accept that there’s always going to be a degree of churn in the neighbourhood as people come and go.
  • What they resent is that fact that they have absolutely no say, let alone control, over the future of their neighbourhood.
  • The problem is that there are elements of the far right lurking in the shadows who are only too happy to start exploiting this resentment for their own ends.
  • Luckily for us, at the moment, the far right don’t have any significant presence in Basildon which gives us some leeway.

HARDIE PARK

  • I’d like to conclude on a more positive note with a few words about a community project I’m involved with where I live in Stanford-le-Hope.
  • This is the transformation of Hardie Park, formerly a neglected park that was once a no go area for a lot of people and has now been transformed into a much loved and used, resident run local park.
  • It started with a few residents undertaking litter picks, clean ups and the like.
  • It grew from there to a more formal project which admittedly works within the system to secure funding that somehow isn’t available from the local authority.
  • The thing about the park is that apart from a couple of paid staff, it’s run by volunteers.
  • All of the volunteers agree that their experiences working at the park has made them feel more confident and empowered.
  • I’m one of the volunteers in the gardening group – we’re pretty much left to get on with it.
  • The interesting thing about the group is that there’s no hierarchy – projects are jointly discussed and when consensus is reached, they’re implemented.
  • As for the way the group operate on their regular gardening day of Friday, there’s no boss telling any of us what to do – apart from a brief discussion over a coffee beforehand, everyone knows what has to be done, picks a task best suited to their physical ability and gets on with it.
  • Whisper it – they’re anarchists but they don’t know it!
  • That level of engagement has made a significant difference to the sense of community in Stanford-le-Hope.
  • The project certainly doesn’t tick all of the boxes an anarchist purist would want to see but as pragmatists, we see more than enough positive aspects to it to give it our active support.

CONCLUSION

  • I’ve dealt with a range of situations, some that are quite difficult and others that offer some kind of hope.
  • Taking the above into account, my feeling is that a sense of community comes from involvement and the knowledge that makes a positive difference.
  • Which is why we do our level best to support and when we can, facilitate, grassroots projects that will bring people together, empower them and start to make a real difference.
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